Photographs in Wednesday's papers of President Bush with cuddly little babies, all of whom were produced from surplus fertilized eggs at fertility clinics, represent a White House attempt to deal with the biggest flaw in logic regarding its stem cell policy -- and its moral weak point. This is the fact that fertility clinics routinely create many test-tube embryos for every human baby that is wanted or is produced.
Here is what happens to those embryos: Some are destroyed because a microscopic examination indicates that they are defective or abnormal. Some of the rest are implanted. But generally, there are some left over. These may be discarded, or frozen for future attempts, or frozen indefinitely; it's up to the customers.
A small fraction of couples choose to donate their unneeded embryos to other infertile couples. Several are implanted in each prospective mother, sometimes producing multiple births. Sometimes they produce one. Frequently, they produce none at all. And about 20% die before they reach full term. The entire process therefore unavoidably involves the creation and knowing destruction of many embryos.
This leads to two conclusions. First, Bush's policy is illogical; he not only tolerates in vitro fertilization -- the president celebrates it (correctly) as bringing happiness to many. It is a "pro-family" policy that unavoidably involves creating and destroying embryos.
Second, encouraging the donation of frozen embryos to prospective parents, even under the most optimistic scenario, would put only a small dent in the supply. According to a 2003 study, there are almost half a million frozen human embryos in storage in the United States. The vast majority of them -- 87% -- were frozen in case the parents might need them, but the vast majority of that vast majority will never be needed or used. An embryo-adoption drive wouldn't save the embryos that die in other stages of the process. And ironically, the recipients of donated fertilized eggs also generally have several implanted in the hope that one will survive. In effect, donation results in the deaths of embryos that would otherwise stay frozen.
A bill approved by a wide (but not veto-proof) margin in the House on Tuesday would loosen restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research. The president is threatening to veto this bill. If he does, these embryos will either be destroyed or frozen forever. They will not develop into cuddly babies. Therefore a veto wouldn't actually save a single embryo. His threat is purely symbolic.
If you really believe that embryos are full human beings, this doesn't matter. But if you think the issue is uncertain or ambiguous at all, it's a powerful argument to say: It's not a choice between a human life and an embryo's life. It's a choice between real human lives and a symbolic statement about the value of an embryo. And it's a statement belied by the reality of in vitro fertilization and how it works.